Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

I was an honest person until diagnosed with cancer. It was my private business. Business that would become public when I needed to take off time from teaching. People would know when they’d see me going about life wearing a wrap on my head when bald. I chose to keep my Stage IV de novo diagnosis quiet for years as it was my choice. Only a few close friends knew, and my mother and sister, along with to whomever they may have blabbed. Why? I wanted to work and be assessed like everyone else. I didn’t want to appear limited. I didn’t need others taking up the slack for me. I certainly didn’t need pity, whispers, or in-my-face questions. One dear friend suggested I would have had even more support and seen more truly good people in my life if I shared from the start. She is probably right.

I chose to lie.

I’ve had lots of practice over the years. I lie easily and I’m a good liar. I’ve done it when I don’t want to talk about cancer and myself. Chances are I’ve lied to you at some point. If you’re nosey and intrusive, I’m not sorry. If you’re my friend, I am sorry. The truth is painful for me and I need to decide what I want to share about myself and when.

I can honestly tell you I will do it again.

I’ve held some medication back when hospitalized a few years ago because I knew they (nurses because of hospital rules) were going to take it away from me. I needed it. In the end, I didn’t take it and understood why it was important not to, but I did lie and even schemed to keep some of it. Truth be told, I believe they lied to me about being able to have access to it when I needed it. If it was to be denied, then I would be denied.

I haven’t been forthcoming (I lied) about the severity of side effects to my oncologists. This isn’t that uncommon. If a drug is working, having the dose reduced or switching to something else isn’t an option that I feel I can risk. I’ve learned where the line is of tolerable pain and too much pain and try not to use language that indicates the latter. Now, this isn’t particularly helpful because side effects need to be documented so patients are believed when they report them.

I am trying to reform.

This next tidbit has been a secret only a few have known until now. There were restrictions where patients were allowed to be when I spent time in the hospital a few months ago. Cancer patients had to stay in the cancer area, which was made even smaller due to the wing where patients were most compromised due to transfusions. To get my 30 minutes of walking in per day involved a lot of repetitive back and forth that rather annoyed me and made me feel stupid. I (somewhat) jokingly texted with a friend that I was thinking of hopping on the elevator I located and giving myself a wider territory. A conversational orderly told me the elevators could take me anywhere in the hospital when I asked. I thanked him. Perhaps I’d even escape, yet this was the coldest weekend in Wisconsin all winter. I wouldn’t get far. I opted against it because it really wasn’t in my best interest to put myself in unsterile areas.

Technically, these elevators were just outside where I was allowed to be.

However, the B6 stairwell was well within the oncology section of the hospital. I had walked by it probably a hundred times when it occurred to me this would be a perfect place to walk. I probably wouldn’t see anyone. It wasn’t a main stairwell. I could climb stairs up and down without holding onto the rail. At this point, I had been unhooked from the IV machine for a couple of hours each day and I was free. I’d keep my mask on because I wasn’t throwing all caution to the wind. So, I walked along the hospital corridor like I was minding my own business. I checked ahead of me and behind to make sure there were no personnel or any patients around.

Into the stairwell I darted.

It was wonderful. Up and down I went to my heart’s content. When I felt satisfied that I had done some good repetitive climbing, I instinctively stood inside the stairwell listening for noises like footsteps or voices. My behavior alarmed me only slightly with the realization I had some makings of a criminal inside me.

I’d do it again.

In fact, I did the next day.

Was this lying or cheating? I would argue I stayed within my area. By entering into the stairwell that was in my area, I was merely extending my designated space.

I also have some makings of a lawyer. I’d credit my years as a teacher where many a student impressed me and taught me how to break rules later in life. It was pretty easy get confessions and disprove their stories. They always left clues. I’m careful I cover my tracks.

Yes, cancer has turned me into a liar. As I mentioned, I’ve done it for self-preservation. The lies are part of the invisible wall I sometimes need around me to keep myself emotionally safe. I also learned other things over time. I’ve discovered that no one really cares what I do. No one is watching that closely. I could get away with an awful lot if I had a devious nature.

The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.

Ayn Rand

I operate from this quote often because I’m sick of things being ripped from me because of cancer. If I have a plan and can present myself well, permission is secondary. I can think of one example where I was told I couldn’t pursue a fundraiser I had planned. Not accepting this as the final answer, I tweaked the plan and reworded a few things so it could move forward.

Ayn Rand’s quote has given me courage to move like I know what I’m doing even when I don’t. (Living with cancer presents this opportunity often.) My college roommate came up for a visit a few years ago and we wanted to visit our former dorm. It was closed for summer and being used to host those staying for conferences. Why couldn’t we appear to be someone who belonged? We needed to walk in like we belonged there and knew where we were heading, while avoiding eye contact with anyone at the front desk. Doors and elevators were locked but we were able to talk our way in by pleading our case to an empathetic custodian.

And again, when it comes right down to it, no one cares what I do. I don’t draw attention. If I’m under the radar and get my way, I still get my way. If a lie has saved me from tears or a conversation I don’t want to have, so be it. To my credit, I haven’t told any huge whoppers.

I’m not under oath to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I’m not even on trial.

And that’s the truth.

So help me God.

Write What You Know

To write what you know is one of the biggest nuggets of writing advice that comes from authors. It doesn’t matter if the writer is published or unpublished, well-known or obscure, or a beginner or someone highly established. Writing what you know allows the writer to draw upon personal events where details can appear more naturally and make the writing feel more authentic. This advice applies to so much more than just events. We feel a wide spectrum of emotions ranging from euphoric to gut wrenching as we live through these events. Writers know emotions and must write those emotions. I believe this is why we get hooked with a story we feel has nothing to do with our lives. It isn’t the mob lifestyle or unspeakable events from Nazi Germany during WWII that pulls readers into a story. We identify with characters who feel what we feel.

As a teacher teaching second graders, this often meant I read lots of informative pieces on playing with pets, narratives of a summer trip where a flight was as exciting as the destination, and realistic fiction stories about camping, sports, or school. Most kids have fairly similar experiences coming from the same geographic area and being so young. The joy of writing, experiencing success, and becoming more independent writers were always wide-ranging goals in any piece. I wanted kids to write what they knew. Writing about what they didn’t know was a blank page.

It’s the same with me.

As a reader, I look to sources who are experts. Mitch Albom. Sue Monk Kidd. Brené Brown. I go back to favorite authors as well as whomever I’m reading at the moment to reread passages and examine what made them effective. I read like a writer. I love words and storytelling. Even when reading fiction, I understand authors research their topics to make stories credible and realistic. Many factors make writing come alive.

I ask myself, as a writer, what do I know?

Cancer

Unfortunately, I know too much.

My mother had uterine cancer that was successfully removed through surgery. It gave me an early example that disease would always be caught early and without much inconvenience. I recall a couple of years later telling friends she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that it was going to be harder but that she’d be okay. It was harder. Mom had a partial mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. I became an expert on her health and breast cancer knowledge. Information was power and I wanted to understand all of it. All was good for years. Golden years.

And then it wasn’t. She wasn’t.

Looking back, I’m not sure if she cared for all my pearls of wisdom that I’d learned. I likely was annoying. It’s very different when the shoe is on the other foot and you have been diagnosed rather than a family member. I want my information but have a bit of an inner attitude when someone who isn’t an authority drops false information at my feet.

My metastatic breast cancer diagnosis came about a month or two later on the heels of hers.

There is a lot I could write about from my experiences with cancer with my mom and from my own. I haven’t mined memories of it with my mom because of the pain. I don’t feel as much pain with my own. I’ve found it to be cathartic and a home to give voice to the pain and whatever other truths need speaking.

Others write from a very factual perspective of their experience. Expert background experience support their writing. They write from legal, medical, patient experience, and personal experience perspectives. Others share raw emotions and reactions to what’s happening in their lives through poems and deeply personal reflections. I tend to write about cancer from the lens of what happens to me and my thoughts about it. Factual information gets sprinkled here and there as it impacts my chosen subject or theme. We’re all invited to sit a while with these perspectives and stories of shared experiences.

Write what you know. I know cancer.

Feelings

Emotions were mentioned at the top of the piece. We all experience universal feelings. Fear. Despair. Loneliness. Humor. Love. Hope. Spirit. A small event of forgetting music at a piano recital can pack some huge emotions of not feeling supported, being humiliated, and hearing your parents lie to you about your achievement. It’s still a tough memory for me. This story can be more powerful than a story that retells a death in the family that is void of emotions. Emotions and feelings spill over in writing because the goal is for someone else to understand and connect with what was written. When I think of a common quality that’s at the core of favorite books, or dare I say even things I write, is the desire to be understood. We crave that as writers and readers.

Feelings are our emotional truths.

Stories of good times on Grandma’s farm help me preserve memories that I want to remember. Her home is a strong example of how emotions create the writing. I took a photo of her farm from out in the field one winter. My grandma, dad, and mom were all warm inside visiting after our Sunday meal. I wrote about how the people I loved were in the photo even though I couldn’t see them as part of an assignment in college. Later, I wrote a poem about it. Years later, this house is in disarray. Raccoons have taken over and hauntingly walk on keys of the damaged piano in the night. A cousin’s son and his wife moved onto the property into the more modern home across the drive when they married. They see the old house as dilapidated and scary (I do too) but more of my emotions are grounded in Sunday visits, time with Grandma, and playing with the farm cats. I sent my cousin’s son a copy of the poem so he could see the abandoned house as a home for a few brief moments.

Write what you know. I know my feelings.

Experiences

Small experiences can have big impacts. I remember winning a cake at a cake walk when I was about six and it was the first thing I ever won. It was a carrot cake with nuts. I was allergic and unable to eat it, but I had won something and felt special. Memories playing at the playground across the street fill many childhood memories. Camping in Girl Scouts. Family vacations. Being bullied. Never knowing if you really fit in. I remember holding my dad’s hand in the ICU and watching it shake trying to find mine after one of his heart surgeries. I have entertaining experiences throwing dinner parties, both fun and disastrous. News of a good scan. Not so good news. There are arguments and celebrations. Little events make a life. Although short, this brief list weaves together experiences with emotions. Most are waiting to be written.

Hope isn’t an experience as much as it is a belief. This belief has been a driving force in some of my experiences and many of my thoughts. Links are provided if you’d like to go back and read past posts. Hope is what I know.

Hope, Belief, and a Monthly Planner

Doom Dibbling or Hope Harvesting

Write what you know. I know my experiences.

Teaching

I know a few things about teaching after twenty-three years in the classroom. Best practices in curriculum and child development have come and gone. Co-workers and students have provided so many stories that you can’t make up. Classic one liners that still make me laugh. One year each child reminded me of a different breed of dog. I loved that class. One year there was a child who had some obvious unidentified emotional issues but who could work quite successfully under his desk. I loved that child as challenging as he was. Another year there was another child who inched her way closer and closer to the door and thought she was hiding. She was a character. I remember mistakes I’ve made like working with glitter as part of projects. I could write about lockdown drills. There is endless material. I can remember where I stood when I learned my dad had died. I know where I was when I got the call that my mom had taken a turn and the end was near. I can bring up the moment where a friend told me she was pregnant. The day I shared with my students I had cancer and couldn’t be with them is still fresh. So many nonteaching things happen within the walls of a school. The things we’d hear if those walls could talk.

I was happy teaching. At times I was frustrated. I felt successful, secure, and safe. Teaching was home.

Write what you know. I know teaching.

I’m not the only one who knows these things.

What do you know?